The GOP's Misguided Campaign Against the United Nations

From partial de-funding efforts to the recent "reform" bill, Republican moves against the UN risk U.S. global leadership and would cost far more than they'd save

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GOP presidential contender Rick Perry has said of the UN, "We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multi-lateral debating societies" / Reuters

For a case study of misguided Congressional efforts to micromanage U.S. foreign policy, look no further than H.R. 2829. If it became law, The United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011 (PDF)--introduced this week by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee--would destroy U.S. leadership at the United Nations and undermine critical U.S. national interests. It would alienate U.S. allies, encourage other nations to adopt similarly irresponsible policies, and impose heavy costs on U.S. taxpayers. Fortunately, the bill has zero chance of becoming law.

The proposed legislation contains several problematic provisions. It would forbid any new or expanded UN peacekeeping operations, unless a series of unilateral U.S. demands are met. It would withhold U.S. funding for (and prohibit U.S. membership in) the UN Human Rights Council, despite unprecedented progress over the past year in getting that (still imperfect) body to hold rights abusers to account. It would end U.S. funding for any UN agency that does not sign a special "transparency certification" with the U.S. Comptroller General. And it would cut U.S. funding to any UN entity tasked with implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

But the bill's most egregious provision is a proposal to cut assessed U.S. contributions to the United Nations by 50% unless the world body moves to a "voluntary" funding model. Currently, the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets are financed through annual assessments on member states, roughly proportional to their share of global GDP. The United States, given its relative wealth, sustains approximately 22% of the UN's regular (and 27% of its peacekeeping) budget.

A long-cherished goal of the UN's most ardent critics--John Bolton foremost among them--has been to require the United Nations to shift to an entirely voluntary funding scheme. This would give the United States a pass to pick and choose among UN entities and initiatives, supporting those it prefers and un-funding those it considers problematic, irresponsible, or beyond salvage. In principle, proponents argue, such an a la carte approach would make the United Nations more sensitive to U.S. preferences, introduce healthy competition among UN agencies seeking U.S. dollars, and provide an incentive for greater UN transparency and accountability.

At first blush, sounds reasonable. So what's wrong with this rosy picture?

To begin with, abrogation of U.S. financial obligations to the United Nations would do grievous damage to the global reputation of the United States and its perceived legitimacy as the world's natural leader. The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to repair U.S. relations with the UN, which reached a nadir during the tumultuous Bush years. Were it to become law, H.R. 2829 would undo this progress, reinforcing the U.S. image as a coercive hegemon determined to impose its will unilaterally on the world body.

Presented by

Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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